Let me kick-start this review with a short disclaimer. Castlevania was among the first NES games I ever got and I’ve been a hardcore fan of the series ever since. I’ve played almost every Castlevania ever made (barring the ones on the DS and that ludicrous fighting game on the Wii), so when I heard about a Castlevania reboot project on the PS3/Xbox 360 I was cautiously optimistic. Optimistic because it was about time they made a truly great 3D Castlevania, but cautious for the same reasons. While the PS2 versions were not all that bad (especially Lament of Innocence), the Castlevania series was never able to follow-up the success of Symphony of the Night, not on a console anyhow. Another aspect I found worrying about the Castlevania reboot (by this point known as Lords of Shadow) was the fact that they emphasized the ‘reboot’. Anyone that has played more than one Castlevania will know that there is not much continuity between the games. The timeline of the Belmont lineage is hard to map and while some versions do follow up on previous games, it has never been an integral aspect of the series. So why a reboot? Was this to be a cruel marketing ploy by Konami, to help sell a game by slapping on the name of bankable IP?
Sadly, having played the game, I would have to say yes. But before I dwell any more on whether Lords of Shadow is a ‘real’ Castlevania or not, I will attempt to assess it as any other 3rd person action / adventure, especially for all the readers that have no particular attachment to the series to begin with.
The main protagonist of Lords of Shadow is Gabriel Belmont, knight of the Brotherhood of Light, destroyer of unholy creatures and defender of the innocent. Gabriel is set on a mission to avenge the murder of his wife Marie. In his attempts to do so, Gabriel realizes that he must defeat the Lords of Shadow in order to rid the world of evil and to acquire the power of the mask, a power which can bring back the dead and reunite him with his lost love.
Gabriel is armed with a whip (the Belmont’s weapon of choice) and, of course, performing combos with this whip is a key part of the battle mechanic but not the only part. As Gabriel’s journey proceeds, he acquires several powers, the most notable of which is his magic ability. Gabriel gains access to two types of magic, Light magic and Shadow magic. Casting either magic empowers Gabriel with the power of light or shadow respectively. The power of light regenerates Gabriel’s health as physical damage is dealt to the enemy, while the power of shadow allows Gabriel to deal heavier physical damage to enemies. Casting either type of magic is also often utilized in puzzle solving. Lords of Shadow boasts a large variety of puzzles which can range from amateurish to brilliant. I fact, I sometimes felt that MercurySteam perhaps over did the puzzles a bit, especially near the end where I felt I was just moving from one puzzle set-piece to another. Still the puzzles are often well-done and while none are really mind-boggling, I found some to be fairly intelligent, especially by today’s low standards.
Once you begin playing, the game will almost instantly remind you of God of War. In fact, it’s alarming how ‘inspired’ Lords of Shadow seems to have been, not just from God of War but other popular games as well. There is clear inspiration from games like Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus (in fact some battles seem to be down-right plagiarized from the latter). Still, games can get away with a little ‘inspiration‘ given that the end result is an entertaining and compelling experience. For the most part, Lords of Shadow succeeds in holding its own. However I found some choices rather odd. For example, much like God of War, Lords of Shadow has a fixed camera. This means there is no need to assign camera controls to the right analog stick (this is a PS3 specific example). Yet, with the exception of using the R3 button to absorb magic orbs , the right analog stick has no use in the game. This would be understandable if the controls were few but they are not. In fact, many actions, including the dodge, are performed by holding down the L2 button in addition to other buttons. Some of the combinations were just not intuitive enough for me and I often lost track of them. The fixed camera also caused some problems in combat. Enemies would often linger off-camera making it painstakingly difficult to target them as well as making your character more susceptible to dash attacks.